By and  on January 27, 2014

BEIJING — After a decade of explosive growth, China’s massive intimate apparel market has become increasingly competitive while brands strive to go beyond simple resizing of international products into full lines and localization.

Industry insiders predict the $16 billion-a-year market will continue to grow at roughly 10 percent a year — far slower than in the previous decade, but still a healthy rate with plenty of new consumers. To get ahead in China, intimate apparel manufacturers have begun studying their potential clients intensely.

China’s demand for intimates exploded in the Nineties and Aughts, creating a mass market for specialized underwear, bras and related apparel where little existed before. But in the time since, consumers have become ever more discriminating about what they want and what they will buy. Real fit, not just downsizing of foreign lines, is most important now.

“Chinese people have a different body structure and shape from Europeans and Americans. Some brands have borrowed product types directly from foreign markets instead of designing for Chinese bodies,” said Liu Jian, founder of the underwear e-commerce project Bragood.

“Now Chinese consumers have many choices of products and styles; however, research and development is not yet good enough for China’s underwear industry,” Liu added. “Some brands have started to design for Chinese bodies and try to make underwear that is healthier and more comfortable for them.”

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Many companies have formed partnerships with Chinese universities for market R&D, in collaborations they hope will pay off in market share in the coming decades. Besides designing for Chinese shapes, manufacturers are looking at products like cleavage- and figure-enhancing shapewear, one of the most popular emerging trends.

Innerwear companies have a unique opportunity, Liu noted, to educate and inform Chinese customers as they design products for the domestic market.

“Consumers do not yet have enough knowledge about choosing underwear, so they pursue an effect of tight, big and up,” said Liu. “This is also because of commercials by underwear companies.”

While retail sales growth is slowing a bit overall, e-commerce could expand by as much as 20 percent a year, said Liu and other researchers. As consumers learn what they like and pick favorite brands and products, they increasingly seek out purchases and special discounts online at platforms like Taobao. But Liu’s research indicates that only about 5 percent of Chinese consumers have a fixed brand and size they return to.

Aimer, Triumph, Maniform, Embryform and Gujin are China’s top five underwear brands in terms of bulk sales, according to Daxue Consulting. Global heavy hitters like Wacoal also have a major presence here, and there’s a market for everything from low-cost offerings to the highest-end products.

“Triumph has well-established design centers in Hong Kong and Mainland China, where fit and body shape studies of the Chinese female are the main focus. In 2011, Triumph in China launched the five consumer benefit platforms,” said Markus Spiesshofer, Triumph’s chief executive officer, referring to five strategic pillars: Listen, Create, Design, Make and Advise.

“Another example is the rollout [in China] of female body shape classification — YSIOA. Each letter represents one kind of body shape, in the shape of that letter. This is the first time that an easy classification has been introduced to the market to help consumers understand their body shape, and find the best bra or shapewear to help enhance their look.”

He explained that based on these parameters, the design teams conduct a regular monthly fitting study among target consumers from different regions of China to construct merchandise that achieves the best fit. Through this process, Triumph adjusts size keys for different parts of the country, as cups and sizes are very different. Triumph has a team of 3,500 fashion advisors who are brand ambassadors as well as fit consultants, trained in product and fitting.

“These fashion advisors work in high-end malls and department stores in 150 cities across the country to educate consumers on how to choose and wear the right bra, and how to differentiate high-quality merchandise from other [types],” Spiesshofer added.

“Except in 2013, the year that China’s economy was facing lots of difficulties, Triumph has had double-digit, like-for-like growth in [recent] years in China,” he said. “Due to the [Chinese] government’s campaign curbing luxury spending since 2013, high-end brand Triumph has been impacted. It is forecasted that the like-for-like annual growth of Triumph in 2014 will be maintained at a single digit.”

Wacoal, which has been in China for 28 years and last year generated about $87 million at wholesale with its Wacoal, Salute and La Rosabelle brands there, has experienced double-digit growth of between 10 and 30 percent, year-on-year, since 2007. The company has a research center in Shanghai, according to Masaaki Yajima, director and president of Wacoal China Co. Ltd. Over the course of 10 years, the center has measured and analyzed body types of some 4,000 women to determine shapes and sizes, and also to discern preferences in color and other attributes.

For instance, the colors Chinese women vary from other cultures, he said.

“Chinese women like vivid color, while Japanese women like pastels, so we design 90 percent of our product [for this market]. The patterns and colors of those products are all original,” he added, noting that the product is also made in China at Wacoal’s own facilities and via subcontractors.

The company also stresses customer service at the point of sale.

“We have 1,400 sales associates at our counters throughout China — all women,” he said. “They consult with the customers, pay attention to their requests and recommend the best products for the consumer. Our customers feel like they are in a salon.”

Peng Guifu, president of the China Underwear Committee of the China Textile Commerce Association, said the trend going forward will be more diversity in brands and choices for consumers.

“Independent brands have become the new force in economic development,” said Peng. “As the market opens up further, competition has increased, but private enterprises are able to develop among competition. Generally speaking, China’s economic development shows diversity.”

Going forward, Peng said, it will be critical for companies to specialize and stamp their brands into consumers’ imaginations. He said consumers will become more focused on quality, better fabrics, market-specific fit, customer service and one-stop shopping for intimate apparel.

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